Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hanford Tour Description

 Hanford, as a few of you may know was a little town of people that the US Government told to move so they could create the Hanford Engineering Works.  The US Government even moved the dead.  The graves were dug up and they were moved to the Prosser Cemetery.  This was part of the Manhattan Project of WWII, to produce Plutonium for the atomic bomb.

My wife and I went on a tour of Hanford yesterday.  It began with me signing up for the tour on March 9, at a few minutes after midnight.  We showed up at the “Manhattan Project B-Reactor” tour site yesterday at about 9AM, just off of Highway 240.  We showed our IDs and boarded the bus.

We drove past the 300 Area, where Uranium was made into fuel elements that would fit into the reactors.  300 Area was also where many of the laboratories were to do research on how best to do things.  Many of the offices for management are also in this area.  This is the area closest to Richland, Washington and can be seen without getting a badge or clearance.  

Then we continued on.  We passed what was once call WPPSS, or “WOOPS,” a series of three nuclear reactors, only one of which is running.  One is at 65% completion, and I believe the other is somewhere around 25% completed.  These three, viewed from above give you an idea of what a reactor looks like at different stages of construction.  The one that is running supplies a huge amount of electricity to the Bonneville power grid. 

We passed the LIGO facility, which monitors gravitational waves via a laser shot down “L” shaped arms that are almost 2 ½ miles long.   And we passed FFTF, the Fast Flux Test Facility, a reactor that had been run to test components for breeder reactors (reactors that create more atomic fuel than they use), and to test safety practices and other things related to both the civil fields of electricity production and medical radioisotopes.   

We got to the Wye Barricade (entrance) and waited while the bottom of the bus was sniffed by a K-9 unit.  We then proceeded north.  We drove past the old Hanford townsite, noting various features along the way.  The Hanford townsite was the site of the tens of thousands of workers who built the wonders of the Hanford Engineering Works.  It was a tent city that lasted less than two years.  You can read more here

We were then driven past the F-Reactor.  F-Reactor  was one of the three War-Time reactors that contributed Plutonium to the War Effort.  It is now cocooned.  It is a sad end to a brilliant piece of engineering. 

(Let me just add here, my opinion on the way they are handling things out there.  They are striving to return the land to a state where nothing remains of the Historic Presence of the US Atomic Energy Commission or any other entity that occupied or run part of the Hanford Reservation.  I disagree strongly with this.  These buildings should remain a part of our heritage!  Once they have been decontaminated, I believe they should remain for the generations that follow.  I believe there is no way to totally know an era unless you stand in their structures or within the areas they stood in.  I know that we can study the historical record, but honestly, you have to get your nose out of books sometime and look with your own eyes and see.  REALLY SEE, what they saw.  An example of that is standing in front of the B-Reactor face.  There is no amount of description that can give you the feeling that standing in front of the reactor can give you.  Nothing can give you an idea of the size of the Processing Canyons that being near them can do.  Nothing says COLD WAR like the construction techniques used here.  If we lose that we lose a chance for historians and people interested in history to experience it in person. )

Next we passed H-Reactor (also cocooned).   Then D-Reactor and DR-Reactor.  DR stands for D-Replacement.  These have all been cocooned.  Their size is remarkable, considering the lack of scale available in the desert.  See the photo below, which I have borrowed from the "Hanford Site." (forgive the pun)

Then we came to the N Reactor.  A dual purpose reactor.  It could produce electricity AND plutonium.  It was such a spiffy new design, President Kennedy stopped by to be part of the opening ceremonies!  An Aunt of mine was present at this occasion!  About six weeks later, that president was dead.  The N-Reactor, however, continued on unto the mid-1980s, when, sometime after the Chernobyl Accident in 1986, the US decided to shut the N-Reactor down for awhile because it shared some of its design with the Chernobyl Reactor.  They never did start it up again.  Three years ago, it was in decent condition.  Today they are in the midst of tearing it down and cocooning it.  Dammit.  

We passed the K East and West Reactors.  both cocooned.  Their basins have been the subject of some local media focus, since some unprocessed fuel rods were sitting underwater for many years and made clean-up a difficult job. 

Finally, we got to the B-reactor!  It is awesome!  That stack that rises above it?  That is a ventilation stack.  It takes the filtered air OUT of the reactor building, which was kept in a negative pressure environment.  We had an hour and fifteen minutes to spend, but it went WAY too fast!  We saw the air fans and the water coolant valves.  Up to 70,000 gallons of water per MINUTE was passed through the reactor!  It was designed to be a 250 megawatt reactor, but the guide said that toward the end they had it up to 2100 megawatts!  I wanted to know what it felt like at the face and he started to show me up to the face when our bus-guide said it was time to go...dammit!  

We stood in the control room, where Enrique Fermi stood 67 years ago!  We did not get to see the back of the reactor like I did three years ago, but that was a small price.  We could see some of the 29 holes where the SAFETY RODs were housed.  These would drop out of the ceiling and into vertical holes shutting down the reaction by absorbing neutrons.  This was my third trip out to the Hanford Area.  My second trip to the B-Reactor.  I plan on going back again.

After we left the B-Reactor, we drove to the 200 West Area.  This is one of the two processing areas.  The spent fuel rods would be placed into the "Canyons" and then subjected to chemicals that would break down the rods one element at a time, until, finally, a slurry of plutonium nitrate was left.  It was then further purified until it became a Plutonium hockey puck.  This was then it was shipped off to Los Alamos to be made into a bomb.  The guides were very PC and wanted to make sure we knew that Hanford was being cleaned up.  To show this we were shown ERDF, a giant pit where they bury dirt.  OK, it’s more than that, but, if you get down to it, that is what they are doing: Burying contaminated dirt.  You can read more about ERDF here, but we stood through the speech, and I am fairly certain they repeated themselves three or four times.  I’m not sure, I sort of tuned out. 

We saw the T-Plant, U-Plant and the Redox.  (That is REDOX above, with the smoke stacks of the coal plant behind, taken three years ago.) All three different buildings used to process fuel rods.  The Tank farms are located downhill from the processing canyons. 

We then went to the 200 East Area and saw the submarine sections, the parts of the hull that had housed the reactors of over 100 hundred submarines and surface ships.  We saw the vitrification plant from a distance.  (vitrification is the making into glass the solid wastes that are now in the tanks)   We also saw PUREX, the Plutonium Uranium Extraction building.  It is huge! See above, another picture borrowed from the Hanford website.

All in all, it was great to see the magnitude of the Manhattan Project.  It was awesome to see the size of the reactors and buildings, but it was sad to see so many reduced to nothing.  And worst of all, was the focus on how they are working to protect the environment.  I must state, I am all for protecting the environment, but I was REALLY interested in the HISTORIC importance of the area AND scientific problems that had been encountered and overcome!  Three years ago there were many more anecdotes shared by the tour guide, today, we got the PC version of everything and I was left wanting!  We made it back to our starting point about 5 hours after we left.

Interested in more?  Have a look here, it is on the B-reactor.  Or read Richard Rhodes’ book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” 

1 comment:

Randy said...

Went on the tour 2 years ago, I was very interested in hearing the history, but the tour guides in the B Reactor were really unimpressive and like you said, doled out the PC version of things. I would love to tour this with a real historian. I will go again in hopes that the guides improve.